My AI-moderated video chat with strangers gave me hope

But “Beyond the Breakdown” has its limits.

Beyond the Breakdown

In 2017, artists and filmmakers Lauren Lee McCarthy, Grace Lee and Tony Patrick were tasked with dreaming up the “future of work” for a residency at the University of Southern California. As part of a 3-month process of exploring ideas for the betterment of Los Angeles, the trio had to imagine what 2020 would look like. They predicted that the election year would bring about, among other things, “massive civil unrest,” “a second civil war” and “a massive data dump,” Lee said during a panel at Sundance 2021. “We called it the Breakdown 2020.”

The residency brought the trio together as they “tried to figure out what the hell world-building is,” Patrick said. It led to the creation of Beyond the Breakdown (BTB) — a browser-based interactive experience that premiered on Jan 30th at Sundance.

In BTB, you sign up for an appointment to have an AI-moderated conversation with six to eight people to dream up a better world. The experience is not currently open to all, but McCarthy told Engadget that while an exact timeline is still being hashed out, “We do plan to make it publicly available.”

You don’t need to show your face, though it’s recommended. After a brief video that recapped the horrors of 2020, I clicked Enter and found myself in a Zoom-ish room with six other people who had already begun getting to know each other. One of them asked me to introduce myself, and after a few more minutes of exchanging pleasantries, words appeared on the screen while a robotic voice greeted us. The AI moderator introduced itself as Serenity and explained some of the features available.

Beyond the Breakdown at Sundance 2021

A pause button at the bottom of the screen would play a 20-second video clip featuring tall green trees and sounds of birds chirping and is intended help users calm down if things get heated. It plays over the entire video chat, too, and everyone has to take a break. A Chat button on the right pulled up a window for us to interact via text with both Serenity and other participants. There were also options to turn off our mics and cameras. Serenity told us to mute ourselves when not speaking (which I was grateful for because the feedback from seven people’s mics was infuriating).

After the introduction, Serenity asked everyone “What are you mirroring now?” That was a confusing question to start with, but one of my fellow attendees rephrased it for us. He speculated that it meant what we were thinking about and reflecting on, and we all answered based on that interpretation. At this point, the experience may sound painfully familiar and borderline pointless.

But Serenity went on to ask truly thought-provoking questions, like what we’d like to see more of in 2050 or what we’d like to not be talking about in that year. Then, it continued prodding, asking about the types of new jobs that would need to be created to facilitate some of our group’s declared values and the world we wanted to create. The questions also differ slightly across all the sessions, according to McCarthy. She said that “Each session follows an arc and many of the questions are the same, but there's also variation in response to the group discussion and flow.”

Beyond the Breakdown at Sundance 2021
Beyond the Breakdown

Beyond the Breakdown is about more than just introspection and imagining the future, though. Its core focus is conversation and dialogue — otherwise why have you answer these questions with a group of strangers? Whenever it seemed like not everyone had responded, Serenity asked if anybody had more to add.

Learning from others in the conversation was what made the experience illuminating and hopeful. When Serenity asked where we thought people would call home in 2050, my fellow participants’ answers surprised me. I was thinking of more straightforward answers like, “Earth,” for example, but others talked about communal living spaces. Some questions were pretty vague, though, like “What does care look like in this world,” and some members of my group chose to interpret it as healthcare while others took it to mean “community care.”

Still, seeing how people interpreted and responded to the questions was part of learning about various perspectives. Like Lee said, the sessions offer “an opportunity to build something rather than just ingest.” Had I only been speaking with Serenity,  I would have missed out on the collaborative aspect.

But of course, the quality of your BTB experience hinges on the people you get to interact with. My session was filled with a somewhat biased, self-selecting sample — Sundance attendees that had access to a computer and spoke English. That excludes people from different socio-economic backgrounds or other nationalities that didn’t converse in English. And while I applaud BTB’s built-in accessibility features like live closed-captioning and text-based support, there are plenty of other considerations that still have to be made.

Beyond the Breakdown at Sundance 2021
Beyond the Breakdown

That said, the fact that I was speaking with intelligent, seemingly like-minded people was a huge part of why I enjoyed BTB. It left me hopeful that the world isn’t filled with angry people who shut down rational discourse, and that there are people committed to building a better future through empathy, sympathy and by listening to others. But I can imagine how my experience would have been completely different had it been filled with people who disagreed on fundamental issues. Sure, there’s always the Pause button to cool things down, and anyone who signs up for a session of BTB is most likely going to be open-minded and agreeable to begin with. But I’m not sure a 20-second timeout would be enough to cool down a truly heated argument.

Patrick said one of the questions he wanted BTB to answer was, “Is it possible for a browser to help us with communal and community care?” McCarthy added, “What if the browser or the video chat experience itself could be leading you through this process, and what happens if we start to bring AI into that?”

I didn’t see Serenity step in to calm down a tricky situation since my session mates were all respectful and agreeable. In retrospect, I wish someone in my group had at least pretended to get heated to see how Serenity would have handled things. I like the idea of a neutral AI moderator leading the conversations, since it could appear more objective to participants regardless of their ideological differences. But I do believe that Beyond The Breakdown has an inherent limit: reach. The people we need to be having open-minded and open-hearted conversations in safe spaces with might not be likely or willing to sign up for such a chat. What it does offer to those of us keen on speaking with people around the world though, is a glimmer of hope as we shake off the debris of 2020 and head into the rest of the decade.